Repentance For and Before Bitterness

Bitter people are no fun. “It’s so nice when toxic people stop talking to you. It’s like the trash took itself out.” “Just because some people are fueled by drama doesn’t mean you have to attend the performance.” Miserable people love to make other people miserable. I don’t hate them, I just feel sorry for them.” I copied these quotations from the internet.  Perhaps you’ve met some of these people, as I have, and can appreciate the sentiments here. Maybe you’ve been this person, and there may even be some slight bitterness lurking in the recesses of your heart. When we are hurt or disappointed, there is always the chance that we will feed the hurt instead of letting it go or asking God to help us with it. It grows into bitterness that affects us and others in ways we cannot imagine. There is only one solution for peace, and that is confession and repentance—even if the hurt was deliberately inflicted on us—we’re still the ones with resentment. The three quotations in my opening reflect those who want to announce, wallow in, and complain with bitterness—about bitterness. Today our Hebrews passage deals with just this problem and calls us to use an example in the Old Testament as guidance to prevent hatred in our hearts. 

Bitterness spreads

“See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no ‘root of bitterness’ springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled; that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal. For you know that afterward, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no chance to repent, though he sought it with tears.” (Hebrews 12:15-17) Esau sought God’s blessing too late, after trading or selling it for a bowl of stew. He devalued God’s gift of his birthright and wasn’t sorry until Jacob received his father Isaac’s blessing instead of him. He never repented and was rejected by God for only wanting His gifts rather than God himself. God will refuse those who show only superficial remorse for losing his blessings. Hebrews 12:15 refers back to God’s OT warning about His covenant with Israel. “You know how we lived in the land of Egypt, and how we came through the midst of the nations through which you passed. And you have seen their detestable things, their idols of wood and stone, of silver and gold, which were among them, lest there be among you a man or woman or clan or tribe whose heart is turning away today from the Lord our God to go and serve the gods of those nations. Beware lest there be among you a root bearing poisonous and bitter fruit, one who, when he hears the words of this sworn covenant, blesses himself in his heart, saying, ‘I shall be safe, though I walk in the stubbornness of my heart.’ This will lead to the sweeping away of moist and dry alike.” (Deuteronomy 29:16-19) One Israelite’s bitterness toward God would become a poison that infected many and result in God’s rejection. The many examples of bitter Israelites include Aaron’s sons and Korah, who rebelled against the Lord in their bitterness. (See Leviticus 10 and Numbers 16.)

Dealing With Our Bitterness

When we are resentful, we dwell on our hurt, have trouble concentrating, have imaginary conversations with the offending party, avoid them, are happy when they have a problem or fail—all characteristics that oppose godliness. If we don’t find the root cause of our bitterness, it can continue for years, even decades. When I was in my 40s, I decided to organize our first ever extended family reunion. I worked on it for a year, and when the day came, it was a delightful summer event. Only afterward did my mother tell me that it was the first time she had seen or spoken with her sister in over 20 years because of a grudge; we rejoiced over their reconciliation. Unfortunately, this was not the only bitterness that entrapped my mother, so I am very familiar with the effects of holding onto hurt. Our immediate family was affected by her deep pain, but she would never talk about her disappointments and refused to get any help. Perhaps it’s no wonder that she became so angry in her late stage of Alzheimer’s. I have no idea if she ever repented, even in her last two hours when God gave her a brief time of lucidity, and I shared the gospel with her. Receiving the forgiveness of Christ was her only help; repentance can only follow confession and release of bitterness. I have learned this myself since I also have had hurts that led to some bitterness. I thank God for helping me to recognize, confess, and repent of my resentments. But Esau didn’t recognize his need to repent, became bitter, lost God’s blessing, and was rejected by God. God rejects insincere remorse and sorrow for consequences; only sincere, heart-felt regret will lead to reinstatement in God’s favor with his blessing. 

Esau’s Failure to Repent 

“Esau is presented as an example of one who despised the promises of God (in contrast to the people of faith in ch. 11) and whose loss was irrevocable. [Whereas] Moses traded Egypt’s treasures for the disgrace of Christ because he saw the reward (11:26), Esau traded his birthright for a bowl of food because all he could see was lentil stew. Readers remember the second stage of Esau’s loss, when his brother Jacob took his place as their father Isaac gave the solemn blessing. This blessing included the substance of the promise made to Abraham (Gen. 12:2-3, 27-29). Though Esau mourned his loss with tears, he did not actually repent of the sin of despising God’s promises. Another view is that the repentance he sought was [only] a change in his father’s mind.” (1) “Tears are not an infallible sign of repentance: men may be more concerned for the loss and mischief that come by sin, than for the evil that is in it; and such repentance is not sincere; it does not spring from love to God, or a concern for his glory; nor does it bring forth proper fruits: or rather, the sense of the words is, that notwithstanding all his solicitude, importunity, and tears, he found no place of repentance in his father Isaac; he could not prevail upon him to change his mind; or revoke the blessing he had bestowed on Jacob, and confer it on him, for he plainly saw it was the mind of God, that the blessing should be where it was; whose counsel shall stand, and he will do all his pleasure. This latter seems to be the better interpretation of the word: ‘all the days of Esau the ungodly, they expected that he would have repented, but he repented not.’” (2) Accepting our hurts and insults without becoming resentful (or confessing if we do) leads us to recognize and accept God’s providential sovereignty over our circumstances.

“The author is not saying that Esau longed to repent but God refused to forgive him, for it can be seen from Peter’s denials and subsequent forgiveness that those who repent are always forgiven. ‘In the phrase’ though he sought it with tears, “it” probably refers to the blessing rather than repentance. Esau still wanted the blessing. If one understands ‘it’ to refer to repentance, then the verse likely means that Esau desired the good consequences of repentance but was not truly sorry for his sins.” (3) Esau lost his place in our faithful fathers’ hierarchy, replaced by Jacob after Abraham and Isaac. “The Church is to guard against the growth of any bitter root, an expression which, coming as it does from Deut. 29:18, probably means a person whose heart has been turned away from the Lord and who becomes ’a root bearing poisonous and bitter fruit’, thereby causing trouble within the Christian community and defiling many besides himself. The Church is also to make sure that no second Esau arises among them, a person who is sexually immoral or godless, a person who does not value spiritual things. The writer warns that a decision like Esau’s is irrevocable. Even though he sought the blessing with tears, he could not change what he had done.” (4) 

The Repentant Lifestyle

Martin Luther’s 95 Theses questioning the Catholic sale of indulgences for penance begins with this statement: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent” (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” (5) “The pivotal first thesis questioned the entire understanding of penance, which was not something one does, but should characterize the entire life of the believer.” (6) Peter offers us a good NT example of repentance to prevent bitterness. And Hezekiah is a good example of one who was bitter and repented. “A writing of Hezekiah king of Judah, after he had been sick and had recovered from his sickness… ‘Behold, it was for my welfare that I had great bitterness; but in love you have delivered my life from the pit of destruction, for you have cast all my sins behind your back. For Sheol does not thank you; death does not praise you; those who go down to the pit do not hope for your faithfulness. The living, the living, he thanks you, as I do this day; the father makes known to the children your faithfulness.’” (Isaiah 38:9, 17-19) This is the day of grace and time for us to approach God for repentance over bitterness. 

Related Scripture: Genesis 25:29-34; 27:30-38; Deuteronomy 29:18-20; Job 7:11; 10:1; Proverbs 14:10; Lamentations 3:1-5; Ezekiel 3:14-15; Acts 8:18-22; Romans 3:10-18; 2 Corinthians 6:1; Ephesians 4:31-32.

  1. The Reformation Study Bible, Hebrews 12:16-17, Reformation Trust Publishing (Ligonier Ministries), Sanford, Fl., 2015. 
  2. Gill, John, “John Gill’s Exposition on the Whole Bible,” Hebrews 12:17 https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/geb/hebrews-12.html
  3. English Standard Version Study Bible Notes, Hebrews 12:16–17, (digital edition), Crossway, 2008.
  4. Zondervan Bible Commentary, F. F. Bruce General Editor, Hebrews 12:15-17, One-Volume Illustrated Digital Edition
  5. Luther’s 95 Theses, https://www.luther.de/en/95thesen.html)
  6. Reformation 500, https://reformation500.csl.edu/timeline/luther-posts-his-95-theses-on-the-door-of-the-wittenberg-castle/

March 18, 2021

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